ORIGIN OF “IWA-AKWA” CEREMONY By Very Rev. Fr. Bernard Emma Okafor, Ph.D, LPC
“IWA- AKWA”, an adult initiation ceremony that takes place in OBOWO, IHITTE/UBOMA, EHIME MBANO and part of AHIAZU MBAISE local government areas of Imo State and perhaps in few other communities, has its origin in Obowo. The ceremony is found in other areas mentioned due to their proximity to Obowo. While other communities can easily state when the ceremony started in their communities, Obowo can hardly trace its origin because it is as old as one can imagine (as Adam) in Obowo clan. A good study of Iwa-Akwa Obowo based on its Prominence, Age-grade formation, Preparation stage, Names of age-grades, Market-square display, Roles played by age-grade, etc., will buttress this fact.
Ihitte and Uboma clans being close brothers to Obowo borrowed this ceremony from their Obowo brother. While the closeness of some communities in Ehime Mbano to Ihitte and Uboma made it possible for them to borrow it as well. It is equally noteworthy that in Ahiazu Mbaise local government area, only Ogbor Ihitteafoukwu perform this ceremony due in part, to their closeness to Umuezegwu in Ihitte.
PROMINENCE OF AGE GRADE SYSTEM AND IWA-AKWA IN OBOWO
Age-grade has such a prominent position in Obowo that Iwa-Akwa is the most celebrated festival in the entire Obowo community. Every male child of Obowo looks forward to this adult initiation ceremony as well as becoming part of an age-grade system. Every Obowo male is easily identified via his age-grade. Members of same age-grade are even closer to each other than blood brothers. The age-grade system is so strong that most stages in life follow age-grade system like going to school, working, marrying, building of houses and making other achievements and careers along with their age-mates, and every male is easily compared to his age-mates. Unfortunately these days, members of new generation churches, out of sheer ignorance, refrain from becoming part of age-grade system and as such, do not participate in the Iwa-Akwa ceremony. Thus, they miss out in the privileges enjoyed by members of same age-grade. The truth is that this ceremony is purely social and has nothing fetish or any religious connotation about it. Significantly, some members of new generation churches are now gradually returning to join their age-grades after discovering this fact.
No other community gives such prominence to age-grade system like Obowo. Iwa-Akwa ceremony takes place after every three years. Of course the reason behind this is that the Igbos believe that it takes three years to wean a child (just as in the bible) hence, they observe a gap of at least three years before having another child. However, there have been some changes this modern time as some people do not even observe up to one year in child spacing. At the moment, this has no effect on the Iwa-Akwa in Obowo although, it should, to avoid a situation where two brothers would become members of same age-grade.
WHEN IWA-AKWA TAKES PLACE IN OBOWO
At a glance, it is observed that in Obowo (comprising of 14 villages), four villages: Alike, Amuzi, Avutu and Umuariam, perform their Iwa-Akwa in one year while the rest perform theirs the following year (except Umunachi, which does not perform Iwa-Akwa but has age-grade system). For instance, the last set of these four villages performed their Iwa-Akwa ceremony in December 2017/January 2018, while the rest villages of Obowo will have theirs in December 2018/January 2019. This split came after the civil war. Before the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970, all villages in Obowo performed the ceremony same year. The last age-grade set had their Iwa-Akwa between December 1966/January 1967 and the next set ordinarily should take place December 1969/1970. Because the war ended on January 12, 1970, at the time all villages should have completed their Iwa-Akwa ceremony, understandably, Iwa-Akwa could not take place then. For this very reason, all the villages had it in December 1970/January 1971. Thereafter, a debate came about the next set. Some argued that in line with the tradition, the ceremony should be in December 1972/January 1973 since the last one was postponed due to the civil war conditions. With this opinion, Alike, Amuzi, Avutu and Umuariam villages performed the next Iwa-akwa in 1972/1973, while the rest villages decided to observe a three-year gap (after the last set) and so, performed theirs in 1973/1974. Consequently, the Iwa-Akwa ceremony in Obowo has remained that way till this day. Significantly, both those who performed theirs in 1972/1973 and those of 1973/1974 form the same age-grade set in Obowo. It is common knowledge that they are all members of same age-grade.
Those males born within three-year cycle form an age-grade. It is only in Obowo that “Iwa-Akwa” could rightly be termed as ‘Adult Initiation’ ceremony because it takes place between the ages of 24-26years. Clearly, it is an initiation into ‘Manhood’ ceremony, after which they are deemed to be adults eligible to pay taxes/or levies and partake in communal discussion and decision making. In other communities like Ihitte, Uboma, Ehime Mbano and Ihitteafoukwu, they are usually thirty something years of age before performing their Iwa-Akwa. Strictly speaking, theirs could not be termed initiation into adulthood but initiation into mid-adulthood. In Obowo, the immediate elder age-grade set plays a very significant role towards their immediate younger age-grade set including: the selection of members of their (junior) age-grade, guiding their meetings, teaching them the customs of the land, and closely supervising them until they lead them for their main market-square display, which is the zenith of the Iwa-Akwa ceremony. It is expected that this junior (immediate age-grade set) will have to approach the elder age-grade set to request age-grade selection for them. This is a way of teaching and maintaining traditional respect of one’s elder no matter ones size or stature. But, in other communities outside Obowo, there is no serious interference and guidance from the elder set; perhaps, that was only done by having meetings and putting things together (like money) for their own ceremony. It is at this formation stage that the real tradition plays out. For clarity sake, I will use seniors to represent the immediate age-grade set that performed their Iwa-Akwa, and juniors to represent the next age-grade set due for Iwa-Akwa. Before beginning their meetings officially and having a register, the junior set through her representatives of about four or five members, will have to visit their seniors at their meeting place to seek for permission to begin their own meeting and have a register. This is a way of identifying and borrowing from the original owners of this custom.
It takes three years to prepare for the next Iwa-Akwa ceremony. As soon as the last set has had their Iwa-Akwa ceremony, the next set (immediate junior) will commence their own preparations recognizing and respecting their elder brothers as well. Where the juniors fail to do this and begin their own meeting, their seniors will have the right to go to their meeting and confiscate their register with the support of the entire community who will view their juniors’ behavior as a mark of disobedience. This was the custom and has to be handed down accordingly. It is the duty of the seniors to teach their juniors within these three years of preparation, how to respect their elders especially, in public; how to present traditional kola nut; how to see to the sanitation of the local markets, rivers and/or streams. Furthermore, ensure their education on the customs and traditions of the land, community, involvement etc.
Within the three years, and sometimes earlier, the initiates would perform the ‘Ishi Nri Iwa-akwa’ ceremony. This mini-ceremony is intended by the parents to announce to the public especially their immediate kindred, family members and the community that their son is among and would participate in the upcoming Iwa-Akwa Ceremony. As the Iwa-Akwa ceremony approaches, the senior age grade would have to permit the intending junior age-grade to use such symbols as the whistle and other materials meant for the ceremony. Again, it is only in Obowo that seniors get seriously involved in preparing their juniors and meticulously guide them until their Iwa-Akwa ceremony takes place. After their Iwa-Akwa, it would be the turn of this new age-grade set (initiates) to hand down the tradition to their immediate juniors.
Every age-grade in any community has a name. In other communities outside Obowo, each age-grade pick their own name. But in Obowo, names are given to each age-grade set by their senior. This sets Obowo apart and clearly marks Obowo as the originator of Iwa-Akwa ceremony and the names are given with meanings. I will have to illustrate this with some age-grade sets in Umuariam village. In 1966, those who had their Iwa-Akwa ceremony were given the name NDIDI Age-grade by their senior meaning Patience. In that year, there was crisis all over the country as a result of military coup and political unrest. So, their senior gave them the name NDIDI, which implies,’ it shall be well, all we need is to exercise patience’. After the civil war, many initiates of Iwa-Akwa who were youths when war broke out, naturally were drafted into the army. Miraculously, majority of them from Umuariam village returned alive from the war fronts. This made their senior to give this age-grade the name, OGUERI (= those that war could not swallow). The next set got the name UWADIEGWU, (=the world is mysterious). Just after the civil war, serious changes came both in the families and communities to the disbelief of many so, this new age-grade set was given the name UWADIEGWU as an expression of surprise and situation of the time. When the next set were to have their Iwa-Akwa, their senior (Uwadiegwu) made serious demands on them and they objected openly, which could have led to the cancellation of their Iwa-Akwa ceremony. However, the age-grade, ECHEHEE ECHETA or Echefuo echeta (= those who remembered what was forgotten), regarded as the current custodian (Patron) of Iwa-Akwa in Obowo was invited to settle the matter between the senior age-grade (UWADIEGWU) and the junior age grade due for the Iwa-Akwa ceremony. The problem was settled amicably so the senior age-grade gave them the name NNADOZIE (settlement of the father). During their own turn, Nnadozie age-grade made some healthy changes that restored the joys of the Iwa-Akwa in the community. Having done this, they gave their junior the name, UDODIRI (= let peace reign). The next age-grade set (where this author belongs) proved a bit stubborn to the senior age-grade during their time of preparations. It could equally have led to the cancellation of their Iwa-Akwa date but, later this senior set applied wisdom and relented for the sake of brotherly love and so gave the junior the name, OBINWANNE (the heart of a brother). Before the next set, an issue came up between Obinwanne age grade and their junior set. Obinwanne age-grade took a stand that was later justified. Hence they gave their junior set the name UKADIKE (words of the sage). The next set wanted an elaborate Iwa-Akwa ceremony, and were set to introduce some changes and so, their senior gave them the name EMENIKE (things are not rushed).
These few examples of age-grade names in Umuariam are glimpses into how age-grades in Obowo at large get their names. What happened in Umuariam kindred is equally the same in other villages of Obowo as far as age-grade names are concerned. Take Amuzi village for instance. About fifteen years ago, when a much older age-grade set wanted to usurp the rights and position of the senior set to the Iwa-Akwa initiates, a serious crisis ensued but later settled. The (rightful) senior set gave the junior set the name, CHI SO MMEGBU (God abhors mistreatment). Just as in entire Igbo land, names are given by seniors/or elders with clear meanings. These Iwa-Akwa age–grade names in Obowo leaves no one in doubt that the Iwa-Akwa ceremony originated in Obowo while others borrowed from her.
MARKET SQUARE DISPLAY
The three-year preparation of Iwa-Akwa ends with a main Market Square display of all the initiates for the year as they appear with their elegant long-woven wrapper costumes. In the olden days, the costumes comprised of machetes and matching leather shields, long-barreled lightweight guns, elegant and shining and whistles. These materials are displayed in front of each initiates’ homes/or compound early on the morning of that D-day to indicate that an initiate is in that compound. Prior to the time set for the initiates to proceed to the main market-square for their display, the senior age-grade set sends out delegates to visit each compound and undertake the dressing of the initiates for the event.
In Obowo especially, among the four villages: Alike, Amuzi, Avutu and Umuariam, their market square display is well organized where only those performing the ceremony are allowed to enter the ring while the rest stay by the side to watch. The initiates performing the ceremony move and dance in a single line within the ring, with their juniors (the next Iwa-Akwa set) dancing in front of them dressed in uniform, while their seniors guide their steps as they move and dance round the market square. Sometimes, the initiates would display hesitation to keep moving and would be carried shoulder high by the seniors. In other communities, both the candidates, their immediate families and friends enter the ring with them. This makes it difficult for visitors to identify the real Iwa-Akwa initiates. Not so in Obowo. After the initial market square display, the initiates may choose to later visit other less prominent market squares within the village to display. Attending the main market square Iwa-Akwa ceremony display of any Obowo village is a sight to behold and leaves no one in doubt that the ceremony originates here.
ROLES PLAY BY AGE-GRADE
As mentioned earlier, the age-grade occupies a very prominent place in Obowo. One relates to his age mate even closer than a blood brother. Most community works and programs are done via age grades. Many age grades embark on various projects in the secular and religious communities. In the olden days, the age-grades are the protectors of the community from outside aggression and infiltration. They act as the ‘soldiers’ of the community, symbolized by the ‘machetes- leather shields’ that accompany their costume as well as the long-barreled lightweight guns. Often when a man has serious problems, especially in economic or financial matters, his age mates rally round to provide solution even to the extent of contributing their time, energy, money and other materials to aid their member. There has been instances where age mates have contributed money and sent delegates in search of their mate who is lost in urban cities; contributed to build a house for the widow of their deceased member, and to set up business for their member. When a member is having any ceremony that requires many hands, material and finance like marriage, ordination, chieftaincy, and other ceremonies, the age mates are closest in offering help. More still, when a man is messing up like taking to excessive drinking, living a wayward life, neglecting his family or other obligations, his age mates are in the forefront to call him to order. In the event of death, age mates play significant role towards the funeral arrangements and burial. Clearly, the roles age-grade system play in Obowo is so crucial that it calls for continuous encouragement as it promotes love, unity and progress.